published Sunday, April 3rd, 2011

Players back in focus?

HOUSTON—Buzz Peterson was part of what many consider the golden decade of the NCAA Tournament.

Beginning with the Larry Bird-Magic Johnson final of 1979 between Indiana State and Michigan State, continuing through a freshman Michael Jordan's game-winner for North Carolina against Georgetown in 1982 (Peterson was Jordan's roommate), the epic Georgetown-Villanova final of 1985, and ending with Danny Manning and the Miracles' victory for Kansas over Oklahoma in 1988, the tournament became a must-see event, its popularity driven by magical players on their way to the Hall of Fame.

“Oh, everybody had players you wanted to see back then,” said Peterson on Saturday morning. “Magic, Bird, Michael, Patrick Ewing, Isiah Thomas. All those guys became household names in the NCAA Tournament.”

Yet even then Peterson found himself thinking of his coach first come the 1982 national championship game in New Orleans.

“We just wanted to win it for Coach [Dean] Smith,” he said. “That's all we were thinking about. We just wanted to give Coach his first national championship.”

And that they did, handing Smith the first of his two national titles, the other also coming in New Orleans in 1993.

But something else was beginning to change by then. Maybe it was the rising tide of players leaving increasingly early for the NBA. Maybe it was the growing popularity of the coaches themselves — particularly Smith, Duke's Mike Krzyzewski, Kentucky's Rick Pitino and Indiana's Bob Knight — whose names and accomplishments never seemed far from the lips of ESPN analyst Dick Vitale.

But whatever it was, the coaches became the stars, their ties to a particular school seemingly so much stronger than the revolving door of players.

“I do think the coaches get too much credit,” said John Thompson, who coached Ewing to three championship game appearances in four years — 1982, 1984 and 1985 — winning it all in 1984.

“But part of that is because the players started leaving so early. By the time you learned their names they were gone. I don't know that it will ever happen, but I wish they'd start making players either go directly to the NBA out of high school or stay at least two years. It would help the game, but more importantly, it would help them for the rest of their lives.”

There is no question that the length of time players should stay in college remains a volatile and liquid argument, one that may be again altered in the next NBA collective bargaining agreement, which is set to expire on June 30.

But despite the fact that the one-and-done option may remain in play, this tournament has become irrefutable proof that those schools who hold on to players for three or more years are changing the game.

Beyond that, Brigham Young senior guard Jimmer Fredette has already won most of the postseason Player of the Year awards.

But Fredette's season ended in the Sweet 16. When Butler and Virginia Commonwealth tipped off Saturday eveninig in the opening Final Four semifinal inside Reliant Stadium, VCU's Rams started three seniors and a junior and the Bulldogs countered with two seniors, a junior and two sophomores.

Said VCU coach Shaka Smart of that dynamic, “I think that Butler and VCU have a chance to win it all is because even though the other two teams in the Final Four [Connecticut and Kentucky] are probably more talented, probably have more NBA players on them, they're also younger, significantly younger.”

Indeed, UConn and Kentucky were set to start five freshmen between them and play at least two more extensively.

But would having experienced mid-major teams reach the Final Four more often return more focus to the players than the coaches?

“That depends on whether those teams would have players people wanted to watch,” said Thompson. “I really don't think it matters that much, because I still think college basketball fans root for schools more than players or coaches. They're rooting for the name on the front of the jersey, and I don't think that's going to change anytime soon, no matter who's playing or coaching.”

about Mark Wiedmer...

Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...

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